The Mumbai attacks have galvanized India and the world in a way that multiple bomb blasts over the last few years had not. The boldness of the attacks, their sophistication and scope, and their motivation are a quantum leap from anything previously witnessed on Indian soil. The nature of the Indian response will be critical, as will those of the United States, China and Russia. Domestic pressure is building in India for an aggressive posture toward Pakistan. But further destabilization of Pakistan will not help. In the short run, India’s best strategy is to cooperate with the Pakistani civilian government to the extent possible, and enlist the help of the US and other nations to rein in renegade elements sheltered by the Pakistani military – the civilian government is powerless to do so on its own.
The chain of recent history provides some strategic guidance for India. Just two decades ago, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its communist ideology led to optimistic pronouncements of a new world order, one with less conflict and greater global integration and harmony. The United States was left as the sole global superpower, and many saw it as leading the way in spreading democracy and capitalism throughout the world. Conflicts on the periphery of the old Soviet empire, including the Balkans and the Caucasus region, provided challenges, but remained local and relatively contained.
The Middle East, however, proved the optimists wrong. Resources and religion inevitably make the Middle East a locus of global friction. Imperialist machinations carved up the region before the Cold War, and created some of the current problems. Cold War proxy battles contributed heavily to the current situations with respect to Iran (which had implications for what transpired with Iraq) and Afghanistan (at the fault lines of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia). But it is the unfortunate mixture of hubris and incompetence that has characterized US foreign policy, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, which brought matters to their current state. Afghanistan and the Middle East’s problems have spilled over into Pakistan, and now to India as well. Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that military force will not create a new world order, let alone transplant democracy.
The other aspect of the post-Communist world was the triumph of the market. Indeed, the recent growth of India and China, and overall world economic growth had raised hopes of a truly new world order, based on greater global prosperity and a drastic reduction in global poverty. At the moment, however, hubris and incompetence have brought the US financial sector to its knees, and threaten the entire global economy. Meanwhile, those who felt left out of the new prosperity are faced with a grimmer future, unless things turn around. The Mumbai attacks are symptomatic of a toxic mix of angst, anger and frustration that seems to have heightened over the past few years, amplified by the US’s military misadventures. The attacks, in addition to seeking to create fear and inflict mayhem among the general populace, clearly targeted symbols and persons connected with Westernization and global capital. Finance, trade and tourism, all contributors to India’s growing prosperity, will suffer in the aftermath of the attacks.
What is India to do?
First, and most obviously, India must put its own house in order with respect to internal security. Governance in India is generally of poor quality, but there is no excuse for the failures that allowed the Mumbai attack to occur. The resignation of the Home Minister (by all accounts a complete failure in that position) is just the first step toward what must be an urgent restructuring of the security apparatus.
Second, as I noted earlier, the use of force against Pakistan will not solve the security problem. Pakistan’s economy, after a reasonably good run, has crumbled under the latest crisis, and this economic collapse will only add to its political woes. There is no easy answer, unfortunately, but keeping lines of communication open is a minimal need. Making the attacks an excuse for religious nationalism will also do no good.
Third, India has to cooperate more closely with likeminded nations in intelligence gathering and security operations. Much more than this, India has to become a serious world player at several levels, including combating terror, but extending far beyond that to global issues of trade, financial regulation and sustainability. This will require a strategic approach to Indian positions on these issues that has often been lacking. The failure to build cooperation was a key deficiency of US international policy after 9/11, not just in Iraq, but in matters related to trade, finance and the environment.
Finally, India must maintain its growth imperative. This is another reason for avoiding open conflict, despite the provocation of the attacks. It means having enough internal security to keep finance, trade and tourism humming as growth engines. It also means more economic reform, to generate the resources for modernizing the institutions that have been exposed as so wanting by the attacks. Ultimately, the quality of governance must improve, to protect citizens as well as support economic growth. India has to focus on its long run welfare, not get caught in a war it cannot win.
The late 19th century’s period of rapid growth and globalization ended in massive conflicts and devastation, as imperial powers escalated individual acts of destruction to a great war in 1914. India has to avoid going down that path.